Alexandra Sakurets, a nurse from Maple Grove, Minnesota, recently went to Poland to help refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine. She worked as a volunteer nurse for three weeks in a shopping mall that was converted into a makeshift hospital, just a few miles from the Ukrainian border.
Sakurets described the conflict as an “all-out war,” after seeing patients suffer all kinds of atrocities on the battlefield. She’s glad to be back home but her experiences in Poland will stay with her forever.
Making a Difference
Sakurets, a mother of four, knew she had to go to Ukraine as soon as the fighting started. She immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine with her family in 1989 when she was just 12 years old.
The mounting refugee crisis convinced her to pack a bag and head towards the crisis.
“I couldn’t watch the news and stay inactive, because I possessed all the qualifications,” Sakurets explained. “I speak their language and I’m medically trained. It is an all-out war on Ukrainian citizens, women and children, living peacefully in villages.”
She was one of five medical volunteers that went to Ukraine as part of the Global Disaster Relief Team, a non-profit started by providers in the U.S.
The group was founded by several Russian-speaking doctors, including Alexander Smirnov, Olga Pavleyeva, and Alexander Zharov, immediately following the escalation in Ukraine. They have a combined 30 years of emergency medical experience under their belts. Zharov is a RN and a veteran of the Iraq War. He also served as a first responder during 9/11.
The team set up a temporary facility and soon started treating 300 to 400 patients a day.
“It was a twenty-four-hour operation,” Sakurets said. “The lights never went off, the people never stopped coming.”
She estimates that the facility provided food, shelter, and care to some 5,000 refugees overall.
“They were given a bracelet, just like this one, that they checked, and were allowed to stay on the premises of the refugee center,” she recalled.
But there was only so much she and her colleagues could do to help severely wounded patients.
“Some things we could take care of, we did. We had antibiotics, we had a physician on staff,” Sakurets explained. “There were people with shrapnel wounds. There was a woman who had pretty major head trauma, and ‘I asked what happened to you?’ And she said, ‘A bomb went off, and I fell, and from the explosion, all of my teeth got knocked out on this side.’”
She also took care of dozens of children that had been displaced by the war. They spent weeks in underground cellars and shelters, and many were suffering from bronchitis.
Sakurets also reflected on a woman that was too scared to leave her home with bombs raiding down nearby – even though she needed to refill her supply of insulin.
“She brought me two of her pens that had nearly all run out,” Sakurets remembered. “To think that somebody would be dying because they can’t get insulin, and what she had also said, the pharmacies got bombed, the hospital got bombed — so there was really no chance of her getting insulin even if she did come out and chose to stay.”
By the time the woman made it to the shelter, Sakurets and her team received a humanitarian shipment with more insulin, giving this story a happy ending.
But Sakurets knows that there are still thousands of people that need medical care in Ukraine.
Now that her three-week assignment is over, Sakurets is happy to be back home in Minnesota, but she also wishes she could’ve done more to help her fellow Ukrainians.
“It felt like I was abandoning my people when I left,” she said. “And I had to tell myself that this is a race that’s not just my race. It’s a race against time. It’s a race for peace.”
When asked if she felt like she had made a difference, she said, “I hope I did, I hope I did.”
As for whether she would ever go back, “I hope I don’t have to. I hope the war is over soon, and we can go back to living our lives. Ukraine will need to be rebuilt. It will need to be defended,” Sakurets declared. “If there is ever a need, and there’s more, this continues, and they don’t have staff, I definitely would.”